The Baguette’s Secret Weapon: Preferments
So then, we’ve established that the baguette was the premier urban fast food of its day, made fast, sold fast and eaten fast (for indeed I forgot to mention that the great marketing advantage of the baguette — because it is so thin, light and fluffy — is that it stales within hours, requiring fresh bread fiends to return the same day for more). And to think how critical the French are of Americans and our McDonald’s, I tell you.
But I digress. The apparent contradiction of the baguette is this: baguettes are made fast. A batch of crispy, tasty, golden brown baguettes can be churned out in as little as a few hours. Yet speed is well known to be the enemy of flavor in bread. Qué pasó?
The answer: preferments. Sponges, poolishes, old doughs. In other words, pre-aged mixtures of flour, water and yeast that are cultivated behind closed doors, then added to the dough at the last minute to provide instant complexity. The whole mixture is then “spiked” with commercial yeast, kneaded, and voilà, an explosive rise and the light and airy crumb so prized by Parisians since 1865 (or so).
Most baguettes call for at least one kind of preferment: usually old dough or a poolish. My preferred formula calls for two different kinds. Why two? I’ll explain that a bit later. For now let’s delve into some preferments. I think you’ll find it enlightening.